Capturing your startup-to-be

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Wikis are brilliant. It’s one of those amazing technologies that is both so ingenious that it fundamentally changes age-old institutions (specifically, encyclopedias, but more generally, replacing expert knowledge with the wisdom of crowds) and is also so brain-dead simple that pretty much anyone can start using them within five minutes. If only more software could be that powerful and elegant.
Not surprisingly, wikis are great for startups. Here at Pretheory, we’ve been using our wiki* a lot recently for collecting technical howtos, links to business articles, task lists, product ideas, and a bunch of other stuff.
As great as the wiki is now, it doesn’t even compare to how useful it was in the twelve months before we officially got started. Without a doubt, the wiki was most important tool for making Pretheory a reality.
The most obvious benefit of a wiki is letting more than one person edit a set of documents, particularly if those people live far apart from each other. In our case, the wiki let my co-founder and I collaborate even though we were 1300+ miles away from each other. We could post business ideas, company names, books to read, funding ideas, and the pros/cons of starting up in Seattle vs. Denver – even when we were on different work schedules and couldn’t talk that often.
But collaboration over distance wasn’t the greatest benefit. You can share ideas remotely over email too. The wiki was great because it kept all our ideas in one place, let us link ideas that related, and even let us edit with confidence, since we knew the wiki would track all of our edits.
Keeping ideas together isn’t just convenient, it’s an great progress indicator. If our ideas were only contained within various emails and phone conversations, it would be hard to get a feel for how far along we were. But with a wiki, I could just browse around and quickly get an idea of what we had done and what we still needed to do. For that first year, the wiki was our startup, and we could watch it grow before our eyes. And when we thought we were ready, we had the documentation at our fingertips.
Even if you’re just considering starting a company sometime in the future, do yourself a favor. Create a startup wiki. Do it today. Put every good, bad, and ugly idea you have on it, and keep updating it. At worst, you’ll spend a little time and have a record of ideas for possible future use. At best, in a few months or years you’ll look at your wiki and realize you’ve what you need to take the leap.
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* We use Instiki because its ridiculously easy to set up and it’s written in Ruby so we can easily hack on it if we need to.

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5 Responses to “Capturing your startup-to-be”

  1. greg Says:

    You could also use a regular journal

  2. Ben Says:

    Sure, a journal is OK too. The benefit is that you can enter ideas anywhere (even places you don’t have internet or wouldn’t bring your laptop). Of course, the drawbacks of a journal include it doesn’t support collaboration, it doesn’t keep a change history, it takes a long time to search, and you can’t easily link other sites…
    I personally use a hybrid solution. I carry notecards with me everywhere to easily capture random ideas, but then I enter them into the wiki when I get home.

  3. Kartik Agaram Says:

    One of the problems I face in organizing open-ended lists of ideas is back-burner management. How do y’all ensure ideas don’t fall off your tables, and that every idea has a place in the workflow?

  4. Ben Says:

    Kartik – I’m not sure I fully understand your question, but I’ll take a stab at it anyway.
    For us, we generally use the wiki for just collecting ideas and use Trac for workflow management. Trac lets us make sure we don’t forget about any tasks.
    But even when collecting ideas on the wiki, we have found that we need to create levels of lists, so to speak. For instance, here is how we would organize product ideas. Every idea went onto the primary page, no matter how crazy it was. Then, every few months, we would take some time and look over the top page and move any ideas we thought were poor into a secondary page. We still look at the secondary page to see if there are any interesting ideas lurking about, but we don’t look at it nearly as often.
    Did I answer your question?

  5. Kartik Agaram Says:

    Yeah, kinda. Thanks. This was a kinda subconscious issue for me, so just writing my question and thinking about it helped. Reading between the lines I see that my mistake was to keep plans/todo lists mixed together with ideas. As a result I would go through phases where I want to remove things from the todo list to get that rush of having things done..
    This raises another question for me: how to nicely separate and map between ideas and todo lists and plans. I need an interface to easily view the big picture either as the set of next things to do along different directions, or as a list of dependent tasks for a single thread. So far my compromise solution was to keep all of them together in a flat space.

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